Malaysia Air Flight 17: Let Grief, Not Anger, Guide Us

Wars bring out the worst on all sides, and to be effective in preventing future tragedies such as MH17, we need to stop blaming others and start taking responsibility for our own mistakes.
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The downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 by a missile over rebel held territory in the eastern Ukraine is a tragedy that senselessly ended 298 lives. But to avoid more such catastrophes, we need to let grief, not anger, guide our response. Anger clouds sound judgment; it allows the current tragedy to become a seed for new ones. We need to grieve not only for the 298 lives lost, but also for our past mistakes which helped lay the foundation for their deaths.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media is feeding our anger and the mistaken perception that the blame for MH17 lies solely at Vladimir Putin's feet, with Friday's New York Times editorial claiming, "There is one man who can stop [the Ukrainian conflict] - Vladimir Putin."

Putin is far from blameless, but we have no control over his actions and complete control over our own. So, to be effective we need to search in the dark recesses of our own nation's soul, rather than cast stones at others.

It is easier to see our past mistakes than our current ones, so let's start on Sept.1, 1983, when Korean Airlines flight 007 violated Soviet airspace and was shot down by a Soviet fighter, killing all 269 on board. President Reagan condemned this "crime against humanity" and contrasted it with how we would act in similar circumstances: "We and other civilized countries believe in the tradition of offering help to mariners and pilots who are lost or in distress on the sea or in the air. We believe in following procedures to prevent a tragedy, not to provoke one."

Yet, five years later, on July 3, 1988, when the American guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down Iran Air 655 in Iranian airspace, killing 290 innocent people, President Reagan portrayed it as "an understandable accident." because the plane "was observed coming in the direction of a ship in combat [our cruiser]" and "began lowering its altitude [as a hostile fighter would do to attack]," although it was later shown that Iran Air 655 was climbing when shot down. Additional questions were raised by an ABC News investigative report, which claimed the Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters when it shot down the airliner, and that we had initiated the combat in which it was involved.

While we later paid compensation to the families of those killed, we have never apologized to Iran or admitted full responsibility. A month after we shot down Iran Air 655, then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush went so far as to proclaim: "I will never apologize for the United States -- I don't care what the facts are."

Just as failing to accept full responsibility for shooting down an unarmed Iranian airliner in 1988 prevents us from ensuring that we don't repeat that kind of mistake again, failing to recognize our part in creating and maintaining the civil war in Ukraine prevents us from taking action to stop that carnage - including a possible repeat of the MH17 disaster. Evidence we need to consider includes:

  • President Reagan's former ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, wrote in his Feb. 8 blog posting: "In sum, I believe it has been a very big strategic mistake - by Russia, by the EU and most of all by the U.S. - to convert Ukrainian political and economic reform into an East-West struggle. ... In both the short and long run only an approach that does not appear to threaten Russia is going to work."

  • On March 1, Ambassador Matlock added to his earlier thoughts: "Whatever slim hope that Moscow might avoid overt military intervention in Ukraine disappeared when Obama in effect threw down a gauntlet and challenged him. This was not just a mistake of political judgment--it was a failure to understand human psychology--unless, of course, he actually wanted a Russian intervention, which is hard for me to believe."

  • On Feb. 20, sniper fire in Kiev killed scores of unarmed protesters in a massacre that led to calls for President Yanukovych's head and his fleeing to Russia. It has been generally assumed in the mainstream media that the sniper fire had come from Yanukovych's forces, but on Feb. 26, in an intercepted and leaked phone call, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet - no friend of Russia's - told the head of EU foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, that, "there is now stronger and stronger understanding that behind [the] snipers, it was not Yanukovych, but it was somebody from the new coalition." While questions have been raised about this exchange, German public television sent an investigative reporting team, which reached the same conclusion.

  • In that same phone call, Paet adds a second allegation: "It's really disturbing that now the new coalition, that they don't want to investigate what exactly happened." This conclusion was also reached by the German public television investigative report.

  • On May 2, dozens of pro-Russian protesters were burned alive when the building in which they had taken refuge from a pro-Ukrainian mob was set on fire. While each side blames the other for starting the fire, a New York Times report stated, "As the building burned, Ukrainian activists sang the Ukrainian national anthem, witnesses on both sides said. They also hurled a new taunt: 'Colorado' for the Colorado potato beetle, striped red and black like the pro-Russian ribbons. Those outside chanted 'burn Colorado, burn,' witnesses said."

Even without the above evidence, common sense alone would question the overly simplified narrative we have been fed in which the carnage in Ukraine is all Putin's fault. Wars bring out the worst on all sides, and to be effective in preventing future tragedies such as MH17, we need to stop blaming others and start taking responsibility for our own mistakes.

Professor Emeritus Martin Hellman serves on Stanford University's Electrical Engineering faculty and its Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and writes a popular blog, Defusing The Nuclear Threat.

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